Interview: Wafaa Bilal casts himself as terrorist in Virtual Jihadi

By Brian Boyko
Contributing Writer, GAS
and Editor of Network Performance Daily

You may not remember the name Wafaa Bilal, but you probably remember the Iraqi-American who locked himself in a room with a paintball gun controlled by random individuals on the Internet for thirty days – that was him, and it’s now nine months later and he’s unable to sleep at night without medicine. Now Bilal has a new controversial art piece that has caused the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s College Republicans to call the college’s Arts department a “terrorist safehaven” for exhibiting it.

In 2003, a forgettable budget first-person shooter game called “Quest for Saddam” was released by a programmer using the Duke Nukem 3D engine. “Quest for Saddam” featured ethnic stereotypes, crude ethnic slurs, and “humor” characteristic of those who find Ann Coulter funny. The developer, Jesse Petrilla went on to found the “United American Committee,” which is most famous for hanging Osama bin Laden in effigy outside a mosque in Culver City, California.Wafaa Bilal as “Virtual Jihadi.”

This game should have faded into obscurity, except that a group called the “Global Islamic Media Front” transformed “Quest for Saddam” into “Quest for Bush” by replacing all the textures. Press coverage immediately slammed “Quest for Bush” as an Al Qaeda recruiting tool, while generally ignoring the content of the original “Quest for Saddam.”

Gameology has more information in a well researched article on both “Quest for Saddam” and “Quest for Bush,” as well as this line:

“Creating a game that repeatedly portrays the killing of a specific individual or ideology and then distributing that game in a context that sincerely advocates the killing of that individual or ideology precludes any claims about that game’s facetiousness.”

That line should be plastered above the door of every FPS shooter game development company as a litmus test.

Bilal’s new art installation takes the game and hacks it to create “The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi.” Through the game, which will be revealed this Wednesday night, March 5th, 2008 at Rensselaer, Bilal casts himself as a suicide-bomber.

Here’s a description, from RPI’s Arts Department:

After learning of the real-life death of his brother in the war, he is recruited by Al Qaeda to join the hunt for Bush. This work is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as Quest for Saddam; along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq. The work also aims to shed light on groups that traffic in crass and hateful stereotypes of Arab culture with games like Quest for Saddam and other media.

I’ll admit that even I wasn’t comfortable with the medium and thought that the message might be lost in the controversy over Bilal casting himself as would-be assassin in work of interactive fiction. Still, I sat down for a phone interview with Wafaa Bilal about the project – and its decidedly controversial nature.

I’m still not sure if I’m comfortable with the work, but at least I know more about the thought process that went into it.

You can find that interview below.

Brian Boyko, GAS/NPD: So, last time we talked you were in a room with a paintball gun pointed at you. What’s happened since then?

WAFAA BILAL: Well, what’s happened since then, I mean, I’m still under – I’m going through – after I left the room, it’s just – it had a huge mental impact on me. On a daily basis, I’m suffering from post-traumatic [disorder] syndrome – a lack of sleep even seven months later, I can’t sleep without taking sleep medication.

GAS/NPD: I’m sorry to hear that. Still seven months later?

BILAL: Yeah, it’s more than seven – it’s about nine months – and still impacted with vivid nightmares, so, yeah, haunted on a daily basis. But the worst is literally lack of sleep… without medication I would not be able to sleep at all.

Yeah, so since then, it’s been really – I never was really able to recover, and resisting the idea of getting some counseling for it, just because I think that part of the project is the aftermath of it. Since that’s what American soldiers are going to go through when they come back. And I wanted to experience this – I wanted to go through it so I could talk about it to other people, and I very much describe it as, “We are, in America now, in the eye of the storm. We don’t see the storm yet. And we’re only going to see it when the soldiers come back.”

I’ve been also writing about the project, and there is a book coming out in the fall, called “Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art, Resisting, Under the Gun.”

GAS/NPD: I never had a chance to apologize to you in person – our [Network Performance Daily’s] coverage of that ended up on Digg and that made your life a little bit worse…

BILAL: Oh, Brian, you shouldn’t apologize. You – I wanted to thank you for all your writing and feedback because I think that’s what we need – is to expose these issues, and there’s no exposure unless we engage, and I think your writing is incredible and brought so much attention to the project – so that’s one of the objectives here – to engage people.

GAS/NPD: So could you tell me a little bit about the new project you wrote me about?

BILAL: Well, the new project is called “The Night of Bush Capture: Virtual Jihadi.” And what happens – well, a person named Jesse Petrilla wrote a program called “Quest for Saddam.” (He made one before: “Quest for Al-Qaeda”) So, in 2003, he released this game. I’ve seen the game, and I had played through it, and it enforces stereotypes of Iraqis as very much similar terrorists, and you could hunt them, and they only speak one word. So, nobody made any big deal of it, but then, the Islamic Media Group, associated with Al Qaeda, took the game, and reskinned it. They didn’t change any of the code, but they just replaced the skins of the Iraqis, which, by the way, they all look alike, they all say one word, which is absolute nonsense.

So, then after Al Qaeda took the game and switched it around by changing the skins – changing Saddam’s skin to President Bush’s skin, the game was labeled “a terrorist recruiting game.” It was a huge deal two years ago, and so now, I wanted to bring attention to the duology of treatment, to hypocrisy and to games that are used as recruitment tools. That’s one side. The other side – I wanted to show the vulnerability of Iraqis becoming involved in Al Qaeda, because there’s no protection in Iraq, and they switch allegiances according to power switches on the ground.

BILAL: We see this even in our [American] inner cities, in gangs, when police don’t protect the people – the people ally with the gang members in that community. I wanted to show the effect on the Iraqi people through this game. I insert my life story as a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I’m happy here until I hear the news of the death of my brother and the death of my father, and through the game, Al Qaeda recruits me, and I become a suicide bomber, and attack President Bush.

GAS/NPD: Did your brother actually die, in Iraq?

BILAL: Yes, that’s how the idea of the paintball project came to life, because he was killed in my hometown of Kufa by a drone plane. And I watched the news after a year after his death, and a soldier in Colorado controlling these planes and dropping missiles in Iraq and when they asked her whether she had any remorse over people’s lives, she said “no,” because “these people are bad people, and I have complete trust in my government.”

GAS/NPD: What do you think people would be taking away from “Virtual Jihadi?”

BILAL: Well, I think it casts a light on violence in video games, also bringing attention to the Iraq issues – things we see being slowly pushed aside. And it casts a light on the vulnerability of the Iraqis, suffering on a daily basis.

GAS/NPD: How did you change the game? Did you just change the textures?

BILAL: No. That’s part of it. I didn’t just change the texture, I created a character, animated and scripted, and at the end of the game you could recruit the character of the first shooter, and he would blow himself up next to a Bush character. It’s hacking the game.

GAS/NPD: Why did you use “Quest for Saddam” instead of “Battlefield 2” which also deals with war in Iraq and is better known?

BILAL: That’s a really good question, because this is about a specific game. And it’s been switched a few times. When I learned about [Quest for Saddam] I thought to myself: “That’s a silly game.” Hunting for Saddam, right? But then I want to the Web site of the “United American Committee” [who made the Quest for Saddam game] – and it’s very disturbing. There’s a link called “Jihad chat” – a look at it will show how disturbing these people are. [Ed: No link will be provided to the United American Committee site due to the nature of the content.]

GAS/NPD: But speaking of disturbing – a lot of people would say that – that casting essentially yourself, or a likeness of yourself in a game where your objective is to blow up the President – a lot of people would say that crosses a moral line.

BILAL: I don’t know if it crosses a moral line, because it’s still virtual, right? So, if games like “Call of Duty” or other games are fine, why should this be any different? When Jesse [Petrilla] made the game to go after Saddam, that’s also crossing the line, so what’s the difference?

GAS/NPD: Well, I think that’s an important point, but it seems to be like a burning in effigy. And perhaps, if this was crossing the line to make the “Quest for Saddam” game – I have to ask, is this not lowering to their level?

BILAL: No… I think it’s a strategy of engagement. I don’t see it as crossing the line at all – but rather calling attention to something really disturbing, this game and the Web site, and the rhetoric as well.

GAS/NPD: Video games are a newer medium, but this isn’t the first example of political subjects being addressed in video games. Do you think we’ll see more of that as the media matures?

BILAL: Yeah. I absolutely agree with you. We’re going to see more and more of games as a tool to capitalize on political issues, and as people, and the medium, become more sophisticated, we’re going to see more and more of this.

GAS/NPD: I remember before the 2004 election, there was this game called “Bushgame.com” which also had – at the end, you fought your way through Republicans and eventually beat George W. Bush – but that was two dimensional game play, where you’re playing these silly characters like a fat He-Man and John Kerry as Voltron, and basically – your game, doesn’t to me, (and I may be wrong,) sound like parody. Do you think that there is a line there – that there’s something to be said there?

BILAL: I think the way we see it – we’re leaving a comfort zone, when stereotyping “the other” is normal, but when the stereotype goes against our beliefs and our education– What Islamic Media Group did was simply change the skins – and all of a sudden it becomes “a recruiting tool.” But when Quest for Saddam was released, it was “fine.” I’m not trying to push buttons so much as call attention to it. It might look like it’s a parallel to the other games, but whatever strategy that you take overall to it – it’s still a peaceful approach…

GAS/NPD: Because it’s not real.

BILAL: Exactly. I mean, that’s the same argument that people use in the games like military games that are out – it’s not recruitment games, it’s very harmless, right?

GAS/NPD: Well, I think the big difference is that when you’re playing something like Battlefield 2, you’re playing a nameless soldier versus a nameless enemy. Here [in “Virtual Jihadi”] you’re playing as a named, real person, against another named, real person – you [Wafaa Bilal] versus the President. Does the humanization make it taboo?

BILAL: It’s very possible. We see that more and more these days. When you go to Second Life, we play our fantasies, so we cast ourselves as people who live in a virtual world, but there are all indications for real life. So this is very similar. More and more virtual work– it is going to be dynamic and sometimes reflect reality, and sometimes placing itself in real-time.

GAS/NPD: Do you think that a lot of this has to do with the idea that video games immerse you in a way that video and text cant?

BILAL: Oh, totally. Overall, we are engaged by them because we are enacting fantasies. We can participate in them – whether the game has an ability to change its direction, such as Second Life, where you can be a participant and change the narrative, and sometimes we involve in a mental interaction when we play an [FPS] shooter or other games, so there’s a level of engagement beyond video and writing because video and writing are passive media. Games are more active. You’re a member of the cast of the narrative.

GAS/NPD: Do you think the development of games as political speech – does that really coincide with the advent of ubiquitous broadband?

BILAL: Yeah, I mean I’m very positive that at some point, we’re going to see more [political] games online than we do right now. This is just the beginning of it, but we will see more political and aggressive games in this direction.

GAS/NPD: I do have to ask you this – you’ve mentioned a couple of times the idea of games as wish fulfillment or fantasy fulfillment. And in this game [Virtual Jihadi] – you have a character who looks like you, who has your name, who, for all purposes, is you. And his main goal is to attack the President. Is that your fantasy?

BILAL: No, it’s not. It’s a [communications] strategy – that’s it. You know from my old art project that I’m a very peaceful person, that I advocate all the time for nonviolent resistance, and I see this as nonviolent resistance as well.